by Dr. Lori Verderame
Slave Tags or slave badges were used by slaves in and around the well-known seaside and slave trade city of Charleston, SC from the late 1700s to 1865.
There were laws in place in the early 1800s which allowed slave owners to hire out their slaves. These laws were in place in southern cities including Mobile, Norfolk, New Orleans, and Savannah. But, the only southern city that had a strict regulatory method for keeping track of these slaves was Charleston. One requirement known only to slaves in Charleston related to the use of slave tags, which are highly collectible today.
Slave owners could rent out the services of their slaves to others for a fee. Slaves were required to wear a slave tag or identification marker. Fees for the tags, similar to a license, were set based on the abilities and skills of the slave. The registration fee or tax for slave tags brought income to the city of Charleston.
Details on Tag
An authentic slave tag included the city “Charleston” in raised lettering in an arched shape at the top of the tag near a punched out hole for the rope to wear around the slave’s neck. Most slave tags measured approximately 2 inches square and were worn in a diamond orientation. A serial number on the tag was specific to an individual slave. The tag further noted the slave’s occupation and year of issue.
By law, the slave tag must be worn at all times by the slave during the calendar year marked on the tag.
Tags included a one-word description of a slave’s skill such as “servant’. The tax year in raised numbers such as “1829” or “1841” is found on authentic slave tags. Also, an authentic slave tag had a unique serial number for one individual slave only. Most tags were made of copper by silversmiths or blacksmiths with a contract to make tags for the city. Authentic slave tags command from $75 to $3,000 depending on condition, occupation noted on the slave tag, and date of issue.
Conversely, slaves working on the property of their original owner or on a plantation did not have to wear a slave tag.
Authentic Slave Tags
An authentic metal slave tag included the city “Charleston” in raised lettering in an arched shape at the top of the tag near a punched out hole for the rope to wear around the slave’s neck. Most slave tags measured approximately 1 ½ inches square to 2 inches square and worn in a diamond orientation.
Tags included a one-word description of a slave’s skill or occupation such as the common occupations of “porter” and “servant”, and also other skills like “fisher,” “fruiterer”, “furniture maker” or “huckster” (the skill of salesmanship). The tax year in raised numbers such as “1829” or “1841” was also found on authentic slave tags. Also, an authentic slave tag has a unique serial number relating to only one working slave which appeared in incised or hand punched numbers and not raised numbering. The Charleston city records that could have linked slave tags to the slaves who wore them (via the serial number on each tag) vanished after the Civil War.
There are a few known makers of slave tags from Charleston, SC. Specifically, there were two makers of slave tags who had contracts with the city to forge these tags including John Mood who made tags during the 1840s and William M. Rouse who produced them during the 1850s.
Values for slave tags have reached to nearly $20,000 for specialty tags however authentic tags that some to market regularly command thousands of dollars from collectors. Fake tags sell for around $50 each. Values for slave tags range widely depending on condition, authenticity (many are forgeries), noted occupation, and age.
Get an online appraisal of your slave tag from Dr. Lori.